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LONDON — My first exposure to the appalling story of Eskom scientist Mark van der Riet came in the most unlikely of places – the regular Tuesday night gathering of Methodists at the home of my parents-in-law. This usually jolly occasion turned sombre as a friend of Van der Riet’s explained how the man charged with checking Eskom’s coal quality had been disciplined and suspended from duty after blowing the whistle on Gupta profit gouging. The story, already disgusting, turned even more rotten as you’ll read from this detailed account of the now late Van der Riet by another of the long time friends of this deeply religious man. A public servant man whose problems, ironically, flowed directly from the intervention at Eskom by then deputy now SA president Cyril Ramaphosa, who has been conspicuously silent on the scandal. Another irony is how the Guptas channelled a staggering $28m of their plunder to build a temple to Lord Shiva in their Indian hometown, perhaps to elicit absolution for their crimes against South Africa. As you’ll read, what happened to Van der Riet is sickening. Even worse, though, has been the lack of any acknowledgement of his courage or the ultimate price he paid for membership of SA’s Thuma Mina campaign long before it became fashionable. – Alec Hogg
By Mike Blenkinsop*
There is ample evidence to link the former apartheid government with the State Sanctioned Murder of activists whose crime was to stand up for what was right.
Similarly, State Capture is a crime against the people that in many respects bears similarities to Apartheid. The comparison is justifiable insofar as the most affected victims of both crimes have been the poor. What makes State Capture so difficult to comprehend, and the perpetrators equally vile, is that the primary perpetrators claim to act on the peoples behalf, while stealing their very existence.
Recently Minister Pravin Gordhan has been very vocal in his assertion that Eskom represents the epicentre of State Capture. This has become particularly evident where Eskom’s coal procurement was involved.
Rewind to December 11 2014, cabinet developed a five point plan to deal with the electricity crisis and established War Room chaired by Cyril Ramaphosa to implement the plan. A technical team war room was immediately established and 25 of Eskom’s most senior technical personnel were seconded to it.
Into this war room, Eskom called Dr Mark van der Riet, their best (ever) coal specialist, under the rationale that poor quality coal was affecting Eskom’s plant performance leading to plant breakdowns. Van der Riet was a man of great knowledge and wisdom and even greater integrity. He was a deeply religious man.
To understand van der Riet’s pedigree, while working full time for Eskom, he was awarded an unremunerated adjunct Professorship at WITS University supervising 33 post-graduate candidates in order to give back to society. This was Ramaphosa’s Thuma Mina only 13 years ahead of its time.
In his 30 year Eskom career, he received multiple performance awards and numerous international awards. He made it onto the worlds Who’s Who listings. With Eskom in its current state, it is hard to believe that people of this calibre existed in the organisation. So why draw attention to this brilliant scientist.
In Ramaphosa’s “War Room”, he was assigned to investigate suspect coal from the Gupta’s Brakfontein Colliery. The team found that no less than half of the Brakfontein coal that they checked was too poor for Eskom to use.
He was summoned by Eskom’s infamous corporate thug Matshela Koko, on the basis of an allegation that the laboratory analysing the coal tried to solicit a bribe to amend results. The allegation was apparently made by one Jacques Roux, manager of Brakfontein Colliery. No credible evidence of this was ever provided, but Eskom saw fit to suspend its contract with Siboniswe laboratory, another victim of Koko. The samples were retested by the SABS laboratory and this time 97% of the coal was deemed too poor for Eskom.
In the interim, Roux and another Gupta linked official Satish Mudaliar strong-armed their way into the SABS laboratory to “witness” the analysis of coal in an attempt to prove it acceptable, breaking every rule associated with Eskom’s normally strict protocols.
Koko then temporarily suspended the Brakfontein contract with Eskom, as it turned out, for five days. The five day suspension was just long enough for Koko and the tarnished Eskom legal head and self-proclaimed whistle-blower Suzanne Daniels to call in van der Riet and his team and suspend them. With a competent audit team out of the way, Koko re-instated the Brakfontein contract to supply even more coal than was previously the case.
Van der Riet remained on suspension for 21 months before commencing the mockery of a disciplinary process that Eskom’s legal machinery put together. He had to go to the CCMA to force Eskom to hold a disciplinary process.
At the disciplinary hearing he was cleared of all technical charges but was found guilty, (despite contradictory evidence), of the crime of sending e-mails to his private e-mail account. It was recommended that he be dismissed.
Subsequent revelations of Koko, Anoj Singh and the Eskom “State Capture Team” use of private and ghost e-mail accounts should make for an interesting charge sheet if van der Riet’s case is to be used as precedent.
Despite his appeals to them, van der Riet’s direct bosses, including ex Eskom senior Executive Thava Govender, did nothing to support him or close out his case, choosing rather to be party to the Koko strategy of keeping honest, competent people on suspension and silenced while Eskom was looted.
Only once Koko had himself been suspended, did Eskom review the findings of van der Riet’s disciplinary process and find them irrational and van der Riet was allowed to return to work in May 2018.
This flagrant abuse of power by Koko, the sheer incompetence of the Eskom legal, HR and IR systems, the lack of courage and integrity of his seven figure salaried line managers, and the suspension of a senior technical official for 32 months all resulted in fruitless and wasteful expenditure running into several millions of rands.
So why raise this issue now? Dr Mark van der Riet recently died aged 56 and the autopsy report confirmed that it was the result of a stress related heart attack. He died literally hours after signing off on his submission to the Zondo commission of enquiry into State Capture.
Many people die of stress related diseases every year, so what makes this different? For people like van der Riet, who are the most dedicated, professional and highly competent people in society, and whose ethics and integrity are beyond reproach, being suspended for doing their jobs particularly well; suspension for performing their duties with distinction is analogous to torture by solitary confinement.
To compare this to our past, when this happens at the hands of corporate thugs like Koko, this can be argued as being analogous to the “State Sanctioned Murder” we saw under Apartheid, only by more subtle means.
President Ramaphosa you were the instigator of the “War Room” into which van der Riet was seconded and “Murdered”. It may not have been on your direct watch or under your supervision that this happened, but you are indelibly linked to it. What should your appropriate response be?
Koko, The Eskom Board and the ex CEO that allowed him to be appointed and facilitated the “State Capture of Eskom”, and the senior executive pawns he surrounded himself with, are all directly or as accessories, guilty of this “Murder” and hopefully someday soon that they through the work of the Zondo commission will be held to appropriate account. Judge Zondo, ensure that van der Riet’s submission is read onto the record although he cannot be present to testify.
But most importantly, what of the heroes of the struggle against “State Capture”? We in South Africa have a rich history of honouring our “Heroes of the Struggle”. We have done it as part of the remembrance of the human cost it took to attain freedom. Mark van der Riet is a “Hero” of the struggle against “State Capture”.
President Ramaphosa, an acknowledgement of his contribution to Eskom and South Africa and a communication with his widow and two sons would go a long way to showing your commitment to clean and efficient government.
- Mike Blenkinsop is an independent Power Industry and Coal consultant who started his career in Eskom in the early 1990’s under Mark’s mentorship. He left Eskom in 1998 to start up various companies involved in Coal Research, Power Industry Consulting and Mining.